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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

JOHN YORK: NAMING THE CONSTELLATIONS

JOHN YORK
John York teaches at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts in High Point. He has published poems in numerous journals. This summer Spring Street Editions will publish his chapbook, Naming the constellations. A graduate of the UNCG MFA program, he resides in Greensboro.


(John York)


Naming the Constellations

1

Trace a line from the front
of the Big Dipper’s cup, over to Polaris,
the penny nail on which the Little Dipper swings.
The rest of the sky, even the visible
galaxies fleeing the big bang,
seem to turn on that near nothing of a star.

Then look for Bootes rising
among catalpa blossoms, Aquila hovering
above summer haze, Orion climbing
through unleafing trees, or the Gemini
watching over hoar-frosted mountaintops.
Even if we never venture over desert places

or through winter woods at night,
we need to learn the old names,
Ursa Major, the Great Wain, the Drinking Gourd:
a way to walk in our ancestors’ boots.
We watch the stars as we watch our steps,
looking to take the long way home.

2

When my grandmother read the paper,
there in the back yard, where she watched
the squirrels playing around the eaves
of the barn’s tin roof, she sat on a white chair,
until she eased forward to the crackling
sigh of relieved cane bottom.

It’s a low chair, made for a shorter generation;
either that or the tapering legs rested
once on rockers that wore out.
Little Roy Burgess wove a new seat,
a simple pattern that’s held for decades.
I fended off Uncle Gilbert at the auction

and claimed my inheritance: and sometimes
I ride the chair around the galaxy while I play
my guitar, the jigs and ballads
Great-grandfather fiddled, tonic, dominant,
sub-dominant chords, then back
to the keynote, opening a door to a cornfield at dusk.

And sometimes, walking out on a December night,
I find the Celestial Chair--Orion's rectangle--
his belt, a tin pan spilling,
his sword, corn dropped for the chickens,
Canis Major making a flock of white beaks,
the hens rushing to flashing seed, while Grandma
sits invisible, a dust cloud gathering into a star.

3

Walking down to the bike path, I see
Orion tilting, stretching over
the street from one group of trees to another,
and on the horizon, a white steeple,
shining in front of a trio of skyscrapers—
a Gothic tower, a space ship, a box—

so bright, I can’t find the Pleiades
or the Pole Star. The astronomers know
that the constellations are changing,
the patterns bending, the stars light years apart,
so that Orion may become “the Manacle,”
“the Butterfly,” or something nameless—

all stories lost: our fictions have lasted
for centuries, the narrative lines forming a map,
there for everyone to accept, revise, or reject,
but now we work at obliterating
the sky, smog, ozone, blather and baloney
our children’s final inheritance.

Walking home, I see a row of lights, a constellation
along a hilltop, but so much of what I do
is by dead reckoning, feeling my way
in the dark, until I find a familiar door,
a chair, a book, a place to snudge like a Hobbit,
listening for a tea kettle, snow fall, sleigh bells.

4

What is hardest is walking with a naked
mind into the night, like some earliest
man or woman, leaving behind
the communal fire, the flickering screen,
to go to mountaintop or empty field
and forget our yammering selves.

When I was a country boy, before I read
about Orion, I saw his limbs and belt
and called it all “The Great Box Kite,”
and I held its string as I stood in the alfalfa stubble,
and a strong breeze kept it aloft
long after I went to bed—and it flies

in me still, when I shine like a clear
sky far from city lights,
when I remember the smell of cows
and a chill wind shimmering,
the tug of the string, the letting go,
the silence where everything is born.


8 comments:

Bachelor said...

Aren't the stars fascinating! John has done a wonder creative poem, thanks for sharing and honoring him.
:) The Bach

Vicki Lane said...

How beautiful! One of the joys of living in the country is getting to know the stars in their seasons. I love the idea of Polaris as the penny nail from which the Dipper swings. And Grandma sitting among the stars, scattering stardust for the celestial chickens. Perfect!

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Hello Bachelor, so glad you stopped by to read John's poem. He is one of my favorite poets.
Vicki, now that our big nightlight is out, we get to see the stars! Amazing. Yes, John is a fabulous poet. I love this poem.

willow said...

Ah, learning the old names is a way to a way to walk in our ancestors’ boots. Amazing piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Pamela said...

Stars are such a mystery to me. This beautiful poem led me into them so smoothly, and that last line is just perfect!! thanks

Jessie Carty said...

i have a special place in my heart for orion. now i'll go back and read the poem again :)

corfubob said...

Kathryn, forgive my familiarity, having only just met you. Thank you for the introduction to John York and for his moving, and so beautifully crafted 'naming the Constellations'.

As a boy in rural Devonshire, England, I also lay on the farmhouse lawn of my childhood and wondered at nameless stars. My eyes were sharper, and the air clearer 60 years ago, but neither were needed to feel them again through John's lovely words. Thanks.

Charlotte said...

Thank you for introducing me to his work, Kay!